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Caroline Winstanly


Heart attack

Heart attack an unwanted Christmas surprise

When Caroline couldn't face a champagne breakfast on Christmas day, she knew something was wrong. But she never guessed the vomiting and sweating she'd had the night before were signs of a heart attack.

Caroline's story starts the night before Christmas 2019 at an early evening mass. The church was packed, and Caroline suddenly felt very unwell.

"I felt very hot and very clammy and I just broke out in an absolute lather. Then I had to desperately get to a toilet. I was trying to work out how I could get, very gracefully, across the floor to the toilet on the other side of the church.

"I got to the toilets and I was absolutely ill. I vomited and had severe dysentery and I was just dripping. I couldn't get over the perspiration," she recalls.

Once she'd been sick however, the strange turn ended almost as suddenly as it began.

"I then felt good, I felt calm. I tidied myself up, put my lippy back on, went back and joined church and stayed there. My friend Annie brought me home. She dropped me off at the bottom of the hill and I jogged back up it, feeling quite good."

Caroline and her husband then headed out to enjoy a Christmas Eve scotch with their son, a family tradition started by Caroline's whiskey-distilling grandfather.

They returned home at around 11pm, but Caroline didn't feel like going to bed. Instead, she watched some TV and then sat in the dark in her chair, behaviour which struck her as slightly odd.

"I kept thinking what's wrong with me? Why am I feeling like this? I didn't feel any pain, I just didn't feel right," she explains.

Still not wanting to lie down, Caroline spent the night doing Christmas dinner prep and decorating the table. Finally, at around 5am she forced herself to go to bed. After a couple of hours drifting in and out of sleep she got up and readied herself for Christmas day.

"There was something wrong when I didn't drink champagne"

First up was a champagne breakfast with friends. However, the usually social Caroline couldn't muster much enthusiasm for it.

"I said to my husband I no more felt like going to a champagne breakfast than flying to the moon. I just didn't feel right, I didn't feel like eating or drinking which was very unlike me."

Caroline went to the breakfast, despite not feeling 100 per cent, but the food and champagne were completely unappealing. It was the same a few hours later, when the children and grandchildren arrived at Caroline's house to start Christmas festivities.

"I love being around my grandchildren, but I just didn't want the noise. I didn't want anything. One of our sons had brought some lovely French champagne back from Europe and so he cracked open the champagne and they knew there was definitely something wrong with me when I didn't drink my champagne."

At the urging of her son, Caroline agreed to go to the local emergency department.

Hospital staff take swift action

"The hospital staff were very quick to react. They did an ECG and said that I was having a heart attack or had had a bit of a heart attack already – maybe while I was sitting in my chair or when going to church, I'm not sure."

At first Caroline was admitted to Intensive Care in New Plymouth in the hope that she might stabilise, but the doctors soon decided on an emergency transfer to Hamilton for treatment.

"I wasn't at all phased, I actually felt a bit fraudulent because I felt OK," she says. "When I got to Hamilton, they did another ECG and they said things were bad. It’s amazing because I felt absolutely fine, no pain, no pressure, no heavy breathing, nothing! And then I was raced to theatre.

"I was feeling so guilty because the specialist had been just sitting down to Christmas dinner. I was busy apologising to him and then I commented on how cold the theatre was. I said it felt like a mortuary and the surgeon told me I was nearly in a mortuary! That's when I realised it was a lot more serious than what I really understood." 

Caroline undergoes angioplasty

The team then carried out an angioplasty to clear the blockages in Caroline's arteries. 

"That was fantastic. The surgeon realised I was very interested in what they were doing, so they put the TV cameras right beside me, and, as he inserted the lines and camera, he talked me through exactly what he was doing. I had three blockages: one was 47 per cent, one was 75 per cent and then they found one that was 99per cent blocked. That’s probably when it hit home to me."

Caroline was very thankful of the support and information she received from the hospital staff in Hamilton.

"They were amazing. It was encouraging to have people there that could explain to you exactly what had happened, because I had had no signs or symptoms of heart issues."

Meanwhile, back in New Plymouth, Caroline's husband had left the now disrupted family Christmas lunch to drive to Hamilton.

"He'd only just left New Plymouth when they rung to say that they were taking me in to surgery. Poor Pete was three hour's drive away and by the time he got up there, I was sitting up in bed absolutely fine.

Reflecting on earlier symptoms

As a fit 68-year-old who walked daily for an hour or more and had previously completed half marathons, Caroline hadn't thought she was a likely candidate for a heart attack.

However, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, she had been aware that something wasn't quite right with her health.

"I think the interesting thing is you know your own body and you know if something's not quite right. The last three weeks before my heart attack I had breathing problems and I'd been to my doctor. I went back to my doctor for a third time the week before Christmas. I told her that I felt that I was being fobbed off because I was 68 and I just wasn't feeling right."

At that third appointment, the GP diagnosed her with adult onset asthma.

"But our family has asthmatics and I didn't think I had asthma, but the interesting thing was, I got a Ventolin inhaler. So I was sucking like fury on this Ventolin inhaler on Christmas Eve. I was just totally unaware that that's what some of the heart attack symptoms were."

Caroline points out that a lot of heart attack symptoms, such as breathing difficulties and sweating, can be confused with menopause or 'just overdoing it'.  

"The surgeon told me I could've had a pain in my wrist and that could've been a sign of a heart attack, which who on earth would think of that, so I think you've got to be persistent and go to the doctor."

"My GP never commented on it afterwards," Caroline says. "I changed doctors, which is not very loyal. But I felt that I had to go to someone who would listen to me and understand me, because having a heart attack gave me a heck of a fright."

Looking for heart attack causes

Since her heart attack, Caroline has discovered a family history of heart disease which she was previously unaware of.

"I don't know if that would've changed anything at the time, but it's certainly changed a lot now. I'm now right back on top of my fitness."

The cardiologist also felt stress may have played a part in Caroline's heart event.

"The surgeon in Hamilton felt a factor for me was stress. I could totally relate to that once he explained that to me. I've had a lot of personal stress.

"No matter how fit and healthy you think you are, there are sometimes underlying currents that just spring up and knock you," she adds.

Knock to the confidence

It took Caroline a little while to get her confidence back after the heart attack.

"I felt very apprehensive, I was too scared for a while to go to sleep at night. It's taken me a long time to gain the confidence to walk a long way from home without carrying a phone and having to take the spray with me."

Another adjustment has been getting used to daily medication.

"I never had pills in my life, so I have a little alarm in my phone that tells me to take pills every morning and every night. Even the grandchildren hear the alarm go off and tell Nana to take her pills!

"I'm going to be on some of it for the rest of my life and I find that hard to deal with. But if that's my insurance for a longer, healthier life, that's what I'm going to do."

Shared November 2020

Please note: the views and opinions of the storyteller and related comments may not necessarily reflect those of the Heart Foundation NZ.

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  • Brian 31 December 2020

    Thanks for sharing. My wife is your age and is very fit. Walking and gym yet she has had symptoms which did not turn out to be serious but your story is a timely warning about getting things checked out.

  • Hana 9 December 2020

    Great story

  • sunny 9 December 2020

    Just read your story Caroline,  Nothing better than a 2nd chance in life, Stay positive and motivated, Enjoy your new journey in life